epa-efeUreña, Venezuela

The "economic siege" that the United States has imposed on Venezuela is responsible for the "hardships" that Venezuelan citizens are experiencing due to the lack of food and medicine in the country, said Freddy Bernal, the so-called "protector" of Tachira state, which borders on Colombia.

Bernal, who holds a post that was created in parallel to the Tachira government, said in an interview with EFE on the Venezuelan side of the Tienditas border bridge, in the municipality of Ureña, that four years ago the US "began a series of sanctions against (Venezuelan) corporations" that have harmed his country.

"They have been getting tighter, as a mechanism of suffocation, (but) they have not been able to suffocate us. This has caused shortages in our town, yes, and we blame the US government for those hardships," said Bernal, a Chavista strongman on the border with Colombia.

He called the US pressure on the Nicolas Maduro government a "criminal siege" adding that, because of it, he took matters into his own hands and created the Local Committees for Supply and Production (CLAP).

"We bring food to six million families every month," he told EFE without any hint of self-criticism and always accompanied by about a dozen people.

He also pointed out that Washington prohibits international organizations from selling medicines to Venezuela to deal with diseases such as cancer and hypertension but that, "despite this, they have not managed to break the spirit of the people."

Venezuela is experiencing a dire economic crisis with widespread shortages and hyperinflation of almost 1.7 million percent in 2018, all of which has spurred an exodus of about 4 million people, according to Parliament and international organizations.

To respond to the most urgent needs, the head of the opposition-controlled Parliament and self-proclaimed interim president of Venezuela, Juan Guaido, said Tuesday that the US humanitarian aid currently being stored in Cucuta, on the Colombian side of the Tienditas bridge, will start entering the country on Feb. 23.

However, the elected leader of the nation - Maduro - has criticized the opposition, saying that it "deceives their followers and the international community on an ongoing basis" and lacks credibility.

"Nothing is going to happen, there is not going to be any coup, no insurrection, no invasion, we are absolutely safe because they don't have the capacity to do it. It's one thing to wish for something and another is (to have the) power," he said.

He also referred to the members of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB) who have publicly turned their backs on Maduro and sided with Guaido as "traitors without leadership."

"That will not disturb us and will not break the monolithic unity of the FANB," he said.

Bernal, who is also the national CLAP coordinator and general commissioner of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Sebin), also downplayed the criticism of Maduro's government for using two cargo truck trailers and a tanker truck to block the Tienditas border bridge, thus preventing humanitarian aid - which, in any case, has been rejected by the regime - from entering the country.

"The binational bridge has never been opened ... There are no immigration, customs or health controls. Therefore, nobody can pass through here, a human being has never passed through here because it is not an open border crossing. We can't close what we have never opened," Bernal said.

This bridge, the third to be built linking the Colombian province of Norte de Santander and Venezuela's Tachira state, was completed at the beginning of 2016 as part of a Colombian-Venezuelan integration plan but was never put into service because months earlier, in the second half of 2015, Maduro had ordered the border to be closed.

That is why Bernal dreams of seeing the bridge opened someday, to rekindle "that permanent brotherhood" with Colombia and reactivate the trading practices between the two countries.

"It would be a great step if one day (the bridge) becomes a border crossing point. I hope relations between Colombia and Venezuela get resolved so that we return to that permanent brotherhood and have the commercial exchange that we have always had," Bernal said.

However, Bernal criticized Colombian Presidents Alvaro Uribe, who was in office from 2002 to 2010, and Juan Manuel Santos, who governed the neighboring country from 2010 to 2018, as well as current President Ivan Duque, saying that "they have been playing a game to disrupt Venezuela's peace" and he blamed them for the fact that the bridge has not been opened.

Finally, the Chavista leader said that the political opposition has been "betting on a civil war for 20 years, which has not happened and will not happen because there is a part of the people who have a social conscience, care about the homeland and are aware that violence is the wrong instrument and will never be the instrument for settling any conflict."

By Jorge Gil Angel.